March 9 (UPI) — Demonstrators blocked roads in cities and towns across Israel on Thursday as part of a “day of resistance” protesting changes to the judicial system by the hardline coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The protests forced the prime minister to fly by helicopter to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport for a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after demonstrators blocked routes to the airport. At least 13 people have been arrested, including Israeli Defense Force reservists and former members of the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces.
The action, which is also expected to disrupt rail travel and ports, involves marches, strikes and protests outside the homes of top government officials in an effort to persuade the government to abandon a new law that would hand power to make judicial appointments to the sitting government.
Appointments are currently made by a selection panel, in part comprised of Supreme Court justices, founded to prevent outside political pressure and ensure the independence of judges.
But opponents argue the move will upset the system of checks and balances that prevents power from concentrating within any one of the country’s executive, legislative and judicial branches.
“The only authority that can criticize the government is the judge. If the reform goes ahead, it will eliminate the only authority that can criticize the government, and we will be left with one authority, which is the government. Unbridled and with unlimited power,” said Restart Israel, which organized the protests. “This is the definition of a dictatorship. And this is how Israel will go from a democracy to a dictatorship.”
Marching parents and children started out from their schools before meeting up with others at central meeting points around the country.
Police told drivers to expect disruptions as a number of major roadways were blocked, including many in the central region and Tel Aviv.
Many businesses including Shufersal — the country’s largest grocery retailer — warned they could not guarantee deliveries to customers.
The judicial changes are opposed by Israeli economists, hundreds of whom signed a letter to the government urging it not to move forward with the law.
Among the notable signees were Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, former Bank of Israel Gov. Jacob Frenkel, and former adviser to the finance minister, Omer Moav.
The row, along with a rise in tensions over Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank, is raising the political stakes with observers warning it could impact the economy.
Global ratings agencies have also flagged the issue, suggesting the domestic turmoil caused by Netanyahu’s judicial plans could negatively affect Israel’s credit rating if investors’ concerns are not allayed.